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A Tribute To Suffragist Isabella Beecher Hooker

By SUSAN CAMPBELL | Courant Staff Writer

August 25, 2008

You won't see it, but on Tuesday Hartford will be represented at the Democratic National Convention.

Former presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton is supposed to address the Democratic National Convention on its second day on Tuesday, the 88th anniversary of women earning the right to vote.

Hartford will be there, in the form of a long-dead, complicated woman who threw her considerable intellect behind getting the vote for women. Though Isabella Beecher Hooker's name is overshadowed by rights greats such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whom she counted as friends and fellow warriors, Hartford's own was instrumental in the movement.

And she did it with good humor and brains. In an 1872 letter to a fellow suffragist, Hooker wrote: "I ever hoped to believe that a woman will be the next president. I do not wish to influence others beyond measure — being a firm believer in the sacredness of individual convictions."

The country's first salvo for women's rights was launched in the mid-1800s, when women who'd been working for the emancipation of enslaved Africans began to turn their attention to their own cause: full citizenship. Hooker latched on once she met Anthony and Stanton, according to a 1914 Hartford Times article. She called women's suffrage "a great and holy cause."

Earlier, Hooker worried that such efforts would take a woman away from hearth and home. Even in the thick of the battle, Hooker's letters are sprinkled with apologies for not writing sooner, citing family obligations.

And what a family. Her family was known as the Fabulous Beechers. Her half-brother was Henry Ward Beecher, the Billy Graham of his day who was later embroiled in an adultery scandal involving one of his parishioners. Her half-sister was Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the abolitionist "Uncle Tom's Cabin." When President Lincoln met Stowe, he asked if she was the woman who wrote the book that started the Civil War.

Hooker was petite and pretty, and as a believer in spiritualism, she talked to the dead. This bothered her sons-in-law to the point that they limited the time she could spend with her grandchildren. But she was a good writer and possessed a keen legal mind, as she demonstrated in 1883 with a treatise that concluded the U.S. Constitution not only didn't bar women from voting, but guaranteed them the right.

In another 1872 letter, she wrote: "Next winter we will besiege Congress and win the day." She wanted to see Stanton elected president (she underlined that), and said: "We must begin the next century with Madam Washington at the head and some of her sisters in the cabinet and a good many in both houses of Congress — don't you think so?"

Hooker circulated among other movers and shakers of her day, including Victoria Woodhull, who in 1872 ran for president (and first published accusations against Hooker's preacher half-brother), as well as Mark Twain, to whom she and husband John rented while his mansion was built on Farmington Avenue. Despite the family scandal and Hooker's unpopular political efforts, the Hookers' 50th wedding anniversary in 1891 was the highlight of Hartford's social season, and Susan B. Anthony was among the guests.

For years, Hooker served as president of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association. The organization, which counted among its supporters Katharine Houghton Hepburn, mother of Katharine Hepburn, was, for it's time, aggressive in its tactics. Members once sold their own shoes (and raised $400) to pay for their equal rights efforts, which included touring the state in newfangled automobiles, banners, speeches, conventions, tracts and marches.

Tuesday's speech by any candidate who didn't reach the brass ring must be a little bittersweet. But though Clinton hasn't yet reached the White House, early suffragists had it worse. Like so many of her compatriots, Hooker didn't live long enough to cast a vote for president. The 19th Amendment became law in 1920, too late for Hooker, who died in 1907, or Susan B. Anthony, who died the year before, or Stanton, who died in 1902.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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